Have faith in "Game of Thrones": We need its urgently human, primal fantasy now more than ever

Despite (and sometimes even because of) its issues, the show's accomplishments are thrilling — and necessary

Published June 14, 2015 10:00PM (EDT)

Emilia Clarke in "Game of Thrones"        (HBO)
Emilia Clarke in "Game of Thrones" (HBO)

Weirdly, “Game 0f Thrones” is still one of the best shows on television.

I say “weirdly,” because this season has been its most controversial, spawning weekly debate on violence, characterization, and the rules of fantastical worlds; now, more than ever, critics and fans are articulating disappointment and frustration with the show. Sansa’s rape and Shireen’s murder have been the two biggest flash points, partly because both events brutally victimized young women—in a show created by two men, based on the writing of another man—but also because those two events have not occurred (so far) in the book series, “A Song Of Ice And Fire.” Then there’s also some other hiccups: The ostentatiously “other” setting of Dorne, the only place in the Seven Kingdoms to prominently cast actors of color—and as a result, a setting that borrows from seemingly every Orientalist stereotype from the 19th century, including hypersexual and deadly femme fatales and the many layers of silk they choose to (not) wear. There is no denying that “Game Of Thrones” makes bizarre, problematic choices, this season more than most—there’s plenty of irritation and outrage to go around.

What I do admire about “Game of Thrones,” though, is that it insists on making these choices. The show has become more epic than ever, in some ways, as the dominoes of the past four seasons have finally started to fall. The show’s ambition outpaces that of the books; where George R.R. Martin started to drag his heels, the show has barreled forward. To quote psychologist Brené Brown, the show has dared greatly. The production values of this show alone speak to higher aspirations than pure amusement; “Hardhome” is an example of an episode that borrows from the best of action films and frames it with what television can do best—a cut to black and lingering silence, with the howling arctic wind the only score over the credits. The sets and filming locations of “Game Of Thrones” are consistently second-to-none; the music, by Ramin Djawadi, has become iconic in its own right. And that’s to say nothing of the cast of characters, which mushroomed in size and quality—it’s quite a cast you’ve got, when Jonathan Pryce and Diana Rigg are listed in the backmatter of the post-episode credits. The hard work of finding these people, costuming them, giving them languages and backstories—this has been, and continues to be, remarkable work.

And along with admiring its massive expenditures—because most of this comes down to HBO’s willingness to spend money on good people, both in front of and behind the scene—it’s also become clear in this season that this show is trying to put forth something positive and progressive, perhaps in response to its critics or, more likely, to match up with the general sentiment of the books. “A Song of Ice and Fire” itself has a lot of thorny politics, notably when it comes to race. But the books are a clear-eyed response to the gender politics and heroism of epics like J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” which itself spawned an entire genre of fantasy writing that borrowed its high ideals and decidedly Euro-centric settings and characters. It is hard to overestimate how revolutionary Martin’s decision to make exactly half of the main characters of his first book girls or women, and yet, much as with Tolkien, it is also absurdly easy to find fault with the way he wrote those women. [My favorite observation on this is from David Wong of Cracked, who writes that Martin is so into women’s breasts that “he assumes that she spends every moment thinking about the size of her breasts and what they are doing”—quoting a passage in “A Clash of Kings” from Dany’s point-of-view, where “her small breasts moved freely.”]

And now the HBO show is in a position that is quite unlike anything else we’ve seen before—an adaptation that is leaping past that source material which has notoriously dragged on and on, an adaptation that has taken on power and popularity that cannot quite compare to whatever the books have accomplished. And as BuzzFeed’s Kate Aurthur observed, the show is more viewed than ever; this season, around 20 million viewers have watched each episode legally, and that does not include the much-discussed illegal economy around the show. Other shows might be more critically acclaimed; other shows might be more watched. But “Game Of Thrones” is where those two metrics meet, creating, perhaps unexpectedly, an era-defining show.

And what has been extraordinarily wonderful about this season, despite the hiccups and stumbles that have characterized the show up until now, is that things are finally happening. At least we know what happens to Sansa, even if we don’t like it. At least Tyrion and Dany have finally exchanged words with each other, even if it wasn’t exactly what we thought it would be. At least Dany has finally, finally hopped on Drogon and flown her dragon as we have always known she would eventually do.

Indeed, in a lot of ways, that scene at the end of last Sunday’s episode is iconic of both the strengths and failures of this season. “The Dance Of Dragons,” for Dany’s story line, focuses on her decision to finally re-open the fighting pits. The entire sequence leading up to the end of the episode is messy—it seems to be attempting to re-create the mounting horror of “Hardhome,” but less well. The audience suddenly swarms with masked enemies, who start killing left and right. Dany’s most faithful servants surround her and protect her, but they are vastly outnumbered. It lacks energy—I never really believed Dany was in danger, which is perhaps my own failure, but I’ll add that the fighting choreography in this season has been sadly lackluster. But finally, what I immediately began to expect did happen: Dany’s biggest dragon, Drogon, lands in the arena and starts fighting to protect his mother. For most of the text of “A Song of Ice and Fire,” Dany’s dragons have either been immature or in captivity or, in the last installment, escaped; the show has followed that trajectory. We have not seen a dragon in combat before. And when Dany realizes that Drogon is being hurt, possibly fatally, by the spears, she realizes that she has to do something to protect him, to protect herself, and perhaps most saliently, to fulfill her own destiny—she has to get on that dragon and fly away.

Is it corny? Oh yeah. I mean, it doesn’t help that the episode makes it pretty obvious when Emilia Clarke is standing in front of a green screen, and the dragons in CGI aren’t quite majestic enough for most book readers’ imagined satisfaction. But this is the case with execution, with finales, with finally doing a thing; it’s rarely as good as we hoped it would be in our heads, but it’s better than having not done it at all. For the first time in many episodes, I was riveted to the screen, watching as Dany gingerly climbs onto Drogon’s back and then tells him to fly in Valyrian before he awkwardly takes off, flapping to gain height before soaring, rather majestically, overhead. On the ground, Tyrion Lannister watches, transfixed, and that reminded me of another long-awaited occurrence that finally made it to screen (and not to page, yet): The first frank conversation between Tyrion and Dany, the perfect ruler and the perfect chief adviser. They bring out a great deal of the best qualities in each other. And what do they talk about? Well, they talk about making the world a better place.

* * *

“Game of Thrones” is about us. It is a fiction that in its enormous popularity reflects some long-held desires of our own, some missing pieces from modern first-world society. It would be cool to have dragons. It would be strange and maybe refreshing to live in a world where oaths mattered, or where you could really disappear forever in a brothel in Lys, or where family history was an arcane knowledge that could change the fate of nations. It’s an exaggerated version of our own struggles, too—a representation of the many ways the world can crush you, change you, reinvent you, all in the name of survival. The byzantine, arcane rules of that world are beyond our understanding; but so many of the rules of our world our beyond our understanding, too. “Game of Thrones,” like much fantasy and much fiction, in general, gives voice to a deep longing for romance that is beyond think pieces or politics; it speaks to our humanity, our frustration with it, our struggle with it, and perhaps most importantly, our attempts to make it meaningful. We dream in fire and blood more often than not; we are the centers of our own romances. And fantasies, no matter how problematic, are still necessary to survive.

Even if the execution sometimes leaves something to be desired, I have to give the show credit for continuing to speak to this liminal side of its audience. The efforts are often stumbling, but in the process, the show trips switches, falls short, and lays bare its own biases—which in turn, help the viewing audience understand their own. And we’re getting somewhere. For all of my problems with the depictions of the Dornish characters, I cannot deny that with the introduction of Dorne, the further exploration of the story lines in Slavers’ Bay, and even the unfolding of Arya’s adventures in Bravoos, “Game Of Thrones” has both expanded its list of lush filming locations and has also begun to address one of critics’ perennial observations: the overwhelming whiteness of the cast. Now characters like Doran Martell, Areo Hotah, Missandei, Grey Worm, Ellaria Sand, and even the thin man who sits by the harbor waiting for his oysters occupy significant screentime. These are actors employed and given free reign to exercise their talents; that’s awesome, and more than I could say, sadly, for a lot of other shows, even on the same network.

And as definitively awful as it is for the show to have written in three extra rapes into “Game of Thrones,” on top of what is alarmingly gender-imbalanced nudity, a large number of brothel scenes, and any number of casual sexualized threats, that number barely comes close to reflecting the sheer ubiquity of rape, sexual assault and sex trafficking that happen in this world on a regular basis—and that’s this world, where it is technically illegal and prosecutable. I’ve written extensively on this topic, so when I say this, I also point the finger at myself: In many ways, our shock at seeing rape on-screen says more about us, the audience, than it does about the creators of this world. It’s a topic that is so difficult for us to even name as rape, let alone to discuss without arguing on the most basic principles; and yet “Game of Thrones” has practically forced us to discuss it. I would rather a world where we are all engaged in thoroughly critiquing or defending a show’s decision to portray a widespread crime committed disproportionately against women than one where we never discuss it at all. If the showrunners of “Game of Thrones” decided that Dany would be raped in the pilot episode so that they could make a multi-season hit drama about a rape survivor coming into her own power, well, I have some issues with their creative decisions, but I cannot deny that there is something pretty damn inspiring about that.

At some point, any story continues to hold onto its reader or viewer or listener through faith—faith that the storyteller knows what they’re doing, and has a path to the end. I would have probably dropped my faith for the show this season were it not for something very subtle and very small, and it goes back to the moments I discussed earlier. It’s Jon Snow standing in the stern of a rowboat, watching as the White Walker king raises a thousand ice zombies from the dead and contemplating the work he has to do. It’s Tyrion and Dany talking, only in theory, about an end to war. It’s a small, simple resolution to do the right thing; reminders, in the midst of the game of thrones (and “Game of Thrones”) that the point is, and always has been, for the game of thrones to end.

By Sonia Saraiya

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